Stoneycroft’s future perfect
By Christine Fallwell
Staff reporter, Hastings
THE FUTURE of one of Hastings’ oldest and most-perfectly preserved homes has been guaranteed with a heritage covenant which will protect it unaltered for generations to come.
In August Joyce Ballantyne, the owner of Stoneycroft, Omahu Rd, entered into an agreement with the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, making her home the first in the Hastings district to be protected in this way.
Stoneycroft, described by the trust as Victorian carpenter Gothic, had already been registered with them in 1983 under a category two classification, but Mrs Ballantyne wanted to give some legal teeth to the recognition of its historic and architectural value.
“You can will the place to the trust, but that can create more problems, because the trust can’t afford to maintain it. And I’d hate it to become a museum – houses that are museums are rather forlorn. I’d like [it] to be someone’s home, I want it to be enjoyed by people long after I’m not here. It must be looked after, so the covenant seemed to be the best thing to do.” she said.
IT GOVERNS the present and future owners of Stoneycroft who must agree not to demolish or damage the property or allow any activity which the trust believes will be detrimental to the building. The trust must approve any restoration or alteration and no new buildings larger than six square metres are to be built on the property.
The terms are strict and the owner remains fully responsible for the upkeep of the property, but Mrs Ballantyne believes that’s the way it must be.
“I think that makes you more responsible,” she said. “The very tight restrictions are needed if Stoneycroft is to be maintained with the integrity and sympathy for its original style which were guiding principles for Mrs Ballantyne and her husband Dr Allan Ballantyne since they bought it in 1954.
“We bought it for the land rather than the house. We’d just come back from the war in the days when there was no pension and we decided we had to do something to provide an income for our retirement.”
A LAND AGENT told them of a property which might be suitable but warned that the house was very old. The Ballantynes were not deterred, both had grown up in old houses, and as soon as Mrs Ballantyne saw Stoneycroft she decided she liked it.
“I’ve never thought old things were anything but attractive and old houses can be just as comfortable to live in as new ones.”
The couple’s interest in their home rapidly changed from acceptance to enthusiasm and they set about restoring to their original state the few very minor alterations that had been made during Stoneycroft’s 120-year life.
By sheer chance Mrs Ballantyne found two kauri mantelpieces which had been removed from the sitting and smoking rooms just before they were to be carted away among a load of scrap timber sold by the previous owner.
Mrs Ballantyne scraped off layers of old paint and replaced some inlaid pieces which were lifting, before replacing the mantelpieces in their original positions.
She also attacked the years’-long accumulation of varnish which had blackened the kauri floors and oiled them to a warm amber. Nothing else was needed. Despite the years and the 1931 earthquake, not a board in the house seems to have moved.
In most other respects Stoneycroft remained unaltered from its original state. Although undamaged four fireplaces had been removed for safety reasons following the earthquake and in 1946 an interior wall was removed to incorporate a small servery into the smoking room.
THE HOUSE would have originally been without separate bathrooms and at some stage a small section of the verandah had been enclosed to provide a downstairs bathroom, while upstairs a dressing room had also been converted to the same purpose.
The original shingle roof was long ago replaced with corrugated iron but apart from that Stoneycroft appears just as it was built for farmer William John Birch in about 1875.
“It’s all built of kauri in what’s called ships lap which is apparently quite unique and has caused quite a lot of interest from architects, said Mrs Ballantyne.
In the kitchen the original kauri bench top and kauri dresser remain and Mrs Ballantyne is gradually removing the last remnants of paint which hide the timber
UNFORTUNATELY the original deeds for Stoneycroft appear to have been lost in the 1931 earthquake and not a lot is known about its history. The Ballantynes put the construction date at around 1875, the year in which Oxfordshire gentleman Mr Birch married his cousin. Only 8.4 hectares of the original 49-hectare property remained when the Ballantynes bought and since then more has been sold until today Stoneycroft stands in 2.4 hectares of parkland.
The Birchs who farmed Erewhon Station, had no children and sold Stoneycroft to W.R Blythe, the owner of a shop in Napier. He in turn sold to Nathianel [Nathaniel] Beamish, of Whanawhana, in 1890 and the Beamish family lived at Stoneycroft for 38 years before letting the house first to Jean Harrison, mother of the former Hawke’s Bay MP Sir Richard Harrison, and then to a Mrs G.A Edmonds.
Without documentation it requires imagination to reconstruct the life of the house in those years. although Mrs Ballantyne has gathered snippets of information from visitors who were familiar with the house under its previous owners.
One of these was a housemaid to the Blythe family. Some of those who served in the house would have travelled daily from Hastings, Mrs Ballantyne said, but others would have lived-in. As there is no servant accommodation within the house, she guesses that a small adjacent building would have been used for that purpose.
More recently it has been used as stables and is now not worth retaining, but when it comes down Mrs Ballantyne hopes to save some of the kauri for use in future maintenance of Stoneycroft.
The grounds were laid out before the house was built and the old trees are for Mrs Ballantyne one of the joys of Stoneycroft.
In 1987 ten of the massive old trees were registered with the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture as being of historic interest. They include what is possibly the only witch elm, a native of central Asia, in New Zealand. All the protected trees, among them a cedar of Lebanon, various types of oak, a Californian tree and a coastal redwood, are exotics. The Ballantynes included natives among their own plantings.
Retaining the original character of the garden has been as important to Mrs Ballantyne as preserving the house itself. It was intended as a natural parkland rather than an intensively cultivated garden. Among the few changes made was the laying of a path around the house using bricks from the demolished fireplaces, and the rehanging of an old gate found discarded on the property.
Mrs Ballantyne has resisted the many approaches from people wanting to subdivide the grounds, but is happy to share them in other ways and welcomes workers from surrounding properties to picnic.
SHE has also opened the house to visitors by appointment and will continue to do so on a limited scale. But heavy foot traffic from large groups is hard on old buildings, she said and the compact nature of Stoneycroft makes big tour groups unmanageable.
That compact design though has made the house very livable, said Mrs Ballantyne. Although upstairs it has five bedrooms and downstairs a music room and smoking room in addition to the dining room, sitting room and kitchen, Stoneycroft’s proportions remain homely.
“It’s a pleasure to live in, just a gem,” she said.
Photo captions –
Above: The dining room.
Centre: Owner Joyce Ballantyne often breakfasts here.
Above: The kitchen at Stoneycroft
One of the restored kauri fireplaces.